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Senior Tim Fish joined the Wine Spectator staff in 2001. His tasting beat includes Oregon, Washington, California Zinfandel and Rhône-style reds, and U.S. sparkling wines.
Tim Fish

A Napa Cabernet that Stands the Test of Time

Joseph Phelps Insignia Napa Valley 1999

Tim Fish
Posted: January 5, 2010

At the end of the year, I always open a few 10-year-old California Cabernet Sauvignons for an impromptu retrospective. The decade mark is a milepost for California Cabernets, and the first real test of whether a vintage is a keeper or a drinker. The 1999s hold special meaning for me since my son was born that year, so my cellar is well-stocked. (Particularly since 1999 Bordeaux lacked as much promise for long-term aging, although I have a magnum of Latour for good measure.)

My colleague James Laube rated the vintage a classic for Napa Cabernet when the wines were released, and his recent retrospective tasting only confirmed it. A Bordeaux-style blend, the Phelps Insignia is typically among my favorite Cabernets after 10 years, and when I opened a bottle of the 1999 over the holidays, I wasn’t disappointed. The wine was still dense and complex, with accents of lively blackberry and cedar. It was ready to drink but had several years of great drinking ahead. I rated it 94 points, non-blind.

WineSpectator.com members: Read the blind-tasting reviews and get the current auction price for Joseph Phelps Insignia Napa Valley 1999 (94 on release, 91 in retrospective tasting; $125 on release).

• Plus, get scores and tasting notes for more recently rated California Cabernet Sauvignon.

Dr Lonnie H Sanders
longwood, fla —  January 5, 2010 10:53am ET
kudos, if your salary supports this pricey wine....mine doesn't...you must
get yours free....tell us what you drink when you put your money on line..
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  January 5, 2010 11:19am ET
Thanks for the note. 1999 was a special year, as I said, so I splurged on those wines. I'm more modest on other years. I still put away a few bottles to see how they will age, but I buy a great deal of wines that I drink fairly quickly: Zin, Pinot, Champagne, Southern Rhone, plus whites from just about everywhere.
Dr J Rosenblatt
Montreal, Canada —  January 5, 2010 5:17pm ET

I'm not sure why Dr. Sanders appears to be so aggressive. I think Cali Cabs are also amazing - what I find special is that they can be consumed young or cellared for 10 years. I just had the 2005 Insignia on New Year's Eve. It was spectacular! I'm looking for a few more bottles, so I could test the 10-year timeframe!
Dominic M Dela Rosa
NJ —  January 5, 2010 5:33pm ET
Tim - thanks for posting your thoughts on the wine. I'm sure others will appreciate your feedback and won't be resentful. It's always nice to splurge on a special wine and equally nice to hear that it lived up to expectations.
Jordan Horoschak
Houston, TX —  January 5, 2010 7:20pm ET
Yes, Tim - please tell us when you drink notable bottles (whether or not you pay for them!). I was fortunate enough to share a 1993 Colgin Cabernet Sauvignon Herb Lamb not too long ago (no, I didn't pay), and I loved it! It really demonstrated that high-quality California Cab can age wonderfully. I suspect that as the general quality of less-expensive California wines continue to improve every year, we'll discover that future mid-priced bottles from great vintages will offer us something magical with 10, 15, or 20 years of age, just like the Cult Cab bottlings can do today.
Josh Moser
Sunnyvale, CA —  January 5, 2010 7:37pm ET
Tim - Here is my Insignia story. I went to a party a few years ago and the host was pouring a 3 ltr bottle of a mid 80's Insignia and a recent vintage of the Merryvale Starmont C/S ($20ish???). Everyone was drinking the Merryvale except for a few of us who recognized that the Insignia was the show stopper. The Insignia was amazing. It is probably in my top 3 (75 Silver Oak Alexander Valley Magnum consumed in 2003 and a 1959 Chateau Latour consumed in 1992).

I have actually been slightly disappointed with some of the 99 Napa Valley C/S that I have had. Maybe this is because when I started drinking them in 06 I thought they were great. I actually think the 98s taste better than the 99s right now.

In any event, great story on the 99 Insignia. Phelps certainly knows how to make some good wine.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  January 5, 2010 9:06pm ET
Great stories. Tasting older wines is always a roll of the dice, but always interesting, too, since there's something to learn in every experience. Deciding when a wine is ready to drink is subjective of course. I like a little youth in my older wines, and I've generally found that the 8-10 year mark is my favorite time to drink most CA Cabs. The best will continue to drink well for years, but how much they evolve and/or improve depends on the wine, the vintage and your tastes. Thanks for reading.
Steve Dow
Beavercreek, OH —  January 5, 2010 9:16pm ET
The 99 Insignia's weren't nearly as expensive then as they are now. I bought mine for less than $90 a bottle at a pre-release sale...one of the best moves I ever made! Cheers...
Stephen Lange
Washigton, DC USA —  January 6, 2010 4:18pm ET
We don't drink Phelps. By far our worst tasting experience ever. Rotten service, stingy pours, quite expensive. Wine wasn't that great.
Ken Knight
Bakersfield, CA —  January 6, 2010 5:23pm ET
Here's a great Insignia story... In 2007, a friend decided to host a party to celebrate several of us in the local wine tasting community, including herself, who were turning 50, 60, 70, and even 80 years old that year. She called it the "Decades of Decandence" and the wine theme was a vertical of Insignia "magnums" from 1995-2005. Wow, what a fantastic event. The 1999 was my #1 choice, but they were all great! We decided to do it again in 10 years and do 2005-2015 next time!
Eric Schaefer
St Louis Mo USA  —  January 6, 2010 11:13pm ET
I turned away from Cali cabs as I broadened my wine horizons, but I have 'come back around' and if I could recommend a back vintage (of the newer vintages I believe 2004 is best) it would be the 1999s. I've never been a big insignia fan, but I have spent a lot of time at altamura and i had their 1999 on new years eve. It is a great wine. Another fair priced great wine in 1999 is Cain 5.

I'm getting thirsty, gotta go to the cellar for a Cali cab.

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